In a Palestinian Village, the Smell of Fire and Fear Remains

After the arson that killed a mother, father and toddler in Duma, everyone is talking about fear of settlers. With reports of arrests, there are now questions about how fair the trial can be.

Members of the Dawabsheh family where their kin were killed by a firebomb, Duma, West Bank, December 3, 2015.
Moti Milrod

The smell of fire continues to waft from the two Dawabsheh family homes in Duma, which Jews set on fire the night of July 30 into July 31.

The smell that rises from the burned home of Moumin and Iman Dawabsheh is even more caustic and aggressive. Their home is bigger than that of their relatives and neighbors who were killed – Reham, Sa’ad and Ali – and isn’t closed off.

Fortunately, Iman, Moumin and their five children were in Nablus the night of the attack. A firebomb was thrown into the empty children’s room, and the fire immediately consumed the clothes, furniture, toys and computers, spreading to the other rooms.

“It was God’s will and we weren’t home. Otherwise what happened to Reham, Sa’ad and their children could have happened to us,” Iman said on Thursday. They now live one floor above the burned-out apartment. They still have to find the money to rebuild it.

Particularly on Thursday, Iman noticed journalists returning to the village. The unclear information about the arrest of suspects explained the renewed interest. “In the end, we want to see justice done,” she said. “They should be punished, if they are responsible, and if not, those responsible should be found and put on trial.”

Hasna, Sa’ad’s sister-in-law, echoed the sentiment. “We want to see justice,” she said. “We want them to be tried, not a fake trial, but on the other hand, what will it do? Our hearts have been burned.”

Iman, a graduate in finance who isn’t working in her profession, says Duma is a quiet, peace-seeking village. “Many of us work in Israel and the settlements. My husband works in Israel, in construction,” she said.

“You are Israelis and you came here, and no one attacked you. I don’t want to see what happened to us happen to others – Palestinian or Israelis. No religion permits such harm to people.”

She also expressed fears that one hears from other relatives. “I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “We believe the Israeli government always covers up settler crimes. I’m not into politics, but I have no faith in the Israeli government.”

Reliving the event

Still, Iman realizes that crimes like this one harm Israel and that the government doesn’t want them to happen. They’re too vitriolic, drawing too much international attention.

“The arson and the murder made more noise in the press, maybe because people who were sleeping at home were burned to death,” Iman said. “It’s impossible to claim that they were doing something against Jews.”

Her oldest son, Mu’atasem, says little. He said he didn’t follow the news reports because he has been focusing on his studies and matriculation exams, and also because “there won’t be a fair trial.”

Abu Bashar, about 60, lives near the two homes that were torched. He and his relatives tried to give first aid to Sa’ad and Reham while they were still burning. He’s a construction worker in a nearby settlement.

A few days ago, he heard from his employer about the arrest of suspects in the murder case. Relations between him and his employer are good, but they don’t talk about he attack and its repercussions. He also doesn’t believe there will be a fair trial.

“Look, they declared the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir insane,” he said, repeating the incorrect version that many Palestinians adopted last week.

Wa’eel Dawabsheh, a close relative, is a psychologist working in Ramallah. He sees that all the village’s residents are despondent from the attack and what followed, and from the events of the past two months.

“Every report [about a death, an army raid, a house demolition] returns us to what happened. It revives the fear,” he said, standing next to late Reham’s abandoned car. “You forget for a day or two, or for a few hours, and then something happens and you’re reminded again.”

He says the circle that’s closest to the victims never forgets. “Every day we check on Facebook what’s happening with Ahmed [the son who survived and is still in the hospital at Tel Hashomer] – how he smiled, what he played with, what new operation he underwent,” Wa’eel said.

Iman and her children are reminded daily of their neighbors who were burned to death, whether it’s her last conversation with Reham while hanging out the laundry, or their plans to start building this month a bigger home on the adjacent plot of land.

“The death of the parents is a relief for them,” Iman said. “If they had stayed alive they would have suffered. But we miss them, even if we believe that as martyrs they’re alive in heaven.”

Feeling the injustice

Everyone in Duma talks about fear. In the first few months, Iman’s children feared going out in the evening to buy something at the nearby grocery; many of the villagers were so scared they stayed awake until morning prayers. Guards patrolled the village. Some residents installed iron bars on their windows to block potential firebombs.

Still, Abu Bashar says confidently that something like this couldn’t happen again. He’s not scared, he said. But his 4-year-old granddaughter stuck to him like glue in panic and hid her face when she saw the two Israelis, a photographer and a writer, in the room. She thought they might be settlers, explained Abu Bashar.

Psychologists from the YMCA and Doctors Without Borders met with the neighborhood children and young relatives for over two months. They got them to talk about what they saw, feared and expected to happen, about where they slept (“only in Mommy’s room”), and about the fear of settlers returning. The children also had activities and games once a week.

After 10 weeks, they took the children on hikes around the springs of Bidan and Tul Karm. Wa’eel Dawabsheh believes the village children’s fears have eased a little but the adults’ anxieties have only increased. It’s impossible to separate the Duma attack from the ongoing occupation. It’s impossible to ignore the political reality in which no peaceful solution is the horizon.

“We adults always tended to say God willing there will be peace. But now we don’t see this as possible. We’ve lost faith. Every Palestinian, not just in Duma, feels injustice. They send 1,000 policemen to the Shoafat refugee camp to demolish the house of someone who murdered Jews, but what do they do to the one who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir?” Wa’eel said.

“Someone who takes a knife and goes to stab someone doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he feels the injustice. There’s no one to protect the Palestinian people and no one to try soldiers and settlers who killed Palestinians. All this stirs hatred. As a student who supported Oslo because I believed it would bring peace, today, 20 years later, I can’t feel anything but anxiety. Our children face an even harsher fate.”